Late last Saturday evening, Violet Towne and I spent several hours in an abandoned lunatic asylum. Now I know there are those among you who will feign surprise that this is anything out of the ordinary (I’m looking at you, Queen Willy) but it has been, in fact, nearly 25 years since my last Abandoned Lunatic Asylum Adventure.

The place we visited is called Aradale, formerly Ararat Lunatic Asylum, one of three asylums built in southern Australia in the late 1800s for the express purpose of accommodating ‘the growing number of ‘lunatics’ in the colony of Victoria’. Aradale is set on a small hill overlooking the Victorian country town of Ararat, a former goldrush settlement which now sports a population of about 7000 people. It’s about an hour’s drive to Ballarat, the nearest center of any significant size, and a further two hours to Melbourne.

Aradale offers three types of tours: a standard historical tour by the volunteer group The Friends of J Ward,(i) and a ‘theatrical ghost tour’ and a ‘ghost hunting tour’ run by a company called Australian Ghost Adventures

I am, as you know dear Cowpokes, quite skeptical of all things ‘haunted’, but I’m nevertheless partial to a bit of gothic fun, so VT and I nixed the straight historical tour in favour of one of the more ghostly options. Since the ghost ‘hunting’ tour sounded like it might attract the same kind of loonies formerly housed in the asylum,(ii) the ‘theatrical’ affair seemed the best bet.

In the end, it was a great choice. After leaving our motel at around 9pm (where the manager warned us that she’d once hosted a ‘total skeptic’ who was ‘completely converted’ after his visit to Aradale…)(iii) we headed out to the asylum and up the suitably forbidding yew-lined driveway.

At the door of Ararat Lunatic Asylum, we were greeted by a chap in funereal attire who enquired ghoulishly after our health, and effusively espoused the benefits of the hospital’s location, situated as it is in such a way on the hill as to take the maximum advantage of ‘the cleansing airs’ (a contrivance in keeping with the prevailing wisdom of Victorian mental health practice). He told the assembled group that, in the manner of the historical facts accumulated from patient records in Victorian asylums, about two thirds of us would be able to leave the hospital at the end of the evening, but that one third would be staying for the rest of their lives.(iv) The ensuing two-hour tour continued in a similar manner, with our guide proving to be an entertaining raconteur as he led us up corridors and down stairways by lantern light, through the length of the shadowy and labyrinthine edifice.

I fear that it wasn’t the terrifying and ghastly ordeal that some of our party expected, but for me the blend of tempered gallows humour and well-researched historical detail was just about right. I must confess that I was expecting probable episodes of faux haunting, but none eventuated, and the only notable ‘scares’ came from our guide when he appeared cadaverously from the shadows in some unnoticed nook in the corridor. The building itself was the star of this show, and those who really wanted to see ghosts almost certainly went away thinking they had.(v)

Places like Aradale are, as I’ve mentioned previously on The Cow, among the creepiest and most disturbing structures on the planet, when you consider the thousands upon thousands of suffering souls who once wandered their dark and echoic corridors. No-one needs to do much to make a tour through them a very memorable and unsettling experience.

It was pretty gloomy for most of the time we were inside the hospital,(vi) so I wasn’t able to get many good interior shots of our adventure, but there are some nice photos of the rooms and halls of Aradale on the Aradale Ghost Tours site.

And while we’re on the subject of lunatic asylums, if you’ve never heard the story I referred to up in the first paragraph, of how I was lost, by myself, in the middle of the night in an abandoned asylum in London, it’s here (and even for those of you who do know it, it’s worth a revisit – I’ve updated that post to include some more information about Stone House Asylum, and I’ve linked to an UrbEx site that has an enormous and beautiful gallery of interior photographs).

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Footnotes:

  1. J Ward is an annexe of Aradale, and is a goldrush-era high security prison that was seconded by Ararat Asylum in the 1880s as a repository for its ‘criminally insane’ inmates. It can be found in the town of Ararat, a few kilometers from Aradale. VT and I did the historical tour of J Ward on the morning after our Aradale visit. It’s also quite a grim and amazing place. []
  2. The ghost hunting tour offers all the technical accoutrements that have become associated with this contemporary folly – night-vision cameras & goggles, EMF detectors (which may as well be called WTF detectors), spirit boxes (more on those in an upcoming post), air temperature monitors and all manner of other nitwittery. It was also about four times as expensive as a result. []
  3. A claim which I took with a large grain of scoff. []
  4. He neglected to mention at this time that a good number of the patients who left the hospital prematurely did so in pine boxes… []
  5. At one stage, two impressionable women on the tour were besides themselves when they noticed a ‘chill breeze’ on their legs. Yes ladies – that would be the cool wind from outside blowing under the door into the warm room we were in… []
  6. Outside, by contrast, the skies were ablaze with the most incredible starry vistas I’ve seen in ages. []

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